THE POWER ARRANGERS SUPERCONDUCTING WIRE AND ADVANCED SOLAR MATERIALS REFLECT UH’S ENERGY EFFORTS
BrenÉ Brown’s Research Reveals the Value of Being Vulnerable
RESEARCH MEDICAL MILESTONE BRIEFS DO FAT CELLS HOLD THE KEY TO MENDING A BROKEN HEART?
IN EVERY ISSUE 2 PUBLISHERs
Rathindra N. Bose Vice President and Vice Chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer Richie C. Hunter Vice President for University Marketing, Communication and Media Relations
ART DIRECTOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER CONTRIBUTING WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHER CHANCELLOR AND PRESIDENT UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON SYSTEM BOARD OF REGENTS
A Message from VP Bose UH researchers are defying the odds by transferring valuable research from the lab to the marketplace despite declining federal funding and other significant challenges.
Research Briefs •
Investment group’s $25M deal to fund UH startups
Eric Gerber Executive Director of University Communication
How the Sahara Desert makes Houston’s air worse
Are domestic violence and food issues linked?
Study fingers type 2 diabetes damage to hands
Treating prostate cancer through metabolism
Closing in on factors leading to foreclosure
Nanocatalyst unlocks water’s energy potential
Is there an evolutionary reason we like shiny stuff?
Does online anonymity cause $%!#& comments?
UH launches Texas Digital Humanities Consortium
The Black Plague as bio-weapon? Elebeoba May’s computer models are safeguarding against it
New thermoelectric material converts waste heat into electricity
Cell phone serves as screening device for melanoma
Can we make blood transfusions safer?
Damisi J. DeLaney Wendell Brock Monica Byars Melissa Carroll Julie Heffler Jeannie Kever Lisa K. Merkl Marisa Ramirez Maribel Salazar Jessica Villarreal Renu Khator Jarvis V. Hollingsworth, Chairman Tilman J. Fertitta, Vice Chair Welcome W. Wilson, Jr., Secretary Durga D. Agrawal Spencer D. Armour, III Beth Madison Paula M. Mendoza Peter K. Taaffe Roger F. Welder Benjamin P. Wells (Student Regent)
Send address and email updates to: University of Houston, Donor and Alumni Records 5000 Gulf Fwy Bldg 1 Rm 272 Houston, Texas 77204-5035 www.uh.edu/researchmag Send feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org Research & Innovation magazine is published by the Division of University Marketing, Communication and Media Relations and the Division of Research. The University of Houston is an EEO/AA institution. Volume 1, No. 1 | 150745 | 05.2014 | 6000 Copyright © 2014 by the University of Houston. Printed on recycled paper
14 President’s Honor roll
Four UH researchers named as fellows to the National Academy of Inventors … More news about awards and appointments.
UH’s intellectual property has increased dramatically in the past few years. Mark Clarke, associate vice president for technology transfer, discusses the upsurge and the importance of developing an entrepreneurial culture.
18 Heart beat Robert Schwartz is turning fat cells into cardiac stem cells that could help a damaged organ repair itself. That stunning development could come within a year, a crucial step forward in the treatment of heart disease.
As America pursues its “all the above” energy policy, two UH researchers are helping lead the way. Venkat Selvamanickam’s super-efficient superconducting wire and Alex Freundlich’s innovative solar materials reflect the breadth of crucial research here at ‘The Energy University.’
25 SHAME, SHAME Social Work researcher Brene Brown’s groundbreaking work on vulnerability and empathy has been earning her national recognition.
26 CHANGING TIMES The measurement and statistics center’s move to an extraordinary new facility adds up to increased productivity, says founder David Francis.
28 THINK IT, PRINT IT At UH, 3D printers are making their mark, assisting hands-on research and making intellectual concepts take shape.
32 SURF’s UP! Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship lets UH students catch a wave of practical experience and scholarly inquiry.
30 DETECTIVE WORK Audrius Brazdeikis’ SentiMag uses benign magnetic sensing instead of radiation to target lymph nodes vital to breast cancer treatment. On the Cover: Golden strands of superconducting ribbon developed by Venkat Selvamanickam. The flexible wire has 300 times the current carrying capacity of conventional copper wire and is being prepared for real-world applications by SuperPower.
Translating Research into Societal Benefits
Every day, our faculty members at the University of Houston are engaged in relentlessly pursuing the creation of knowledge, nurturing the next generation of scholars, solving complex problems in a collaborative manner and transferring research from the laboratory to the marketplace.
were filed this year. Our new faculty recruits have continued to attain noteworthy and prestigious young investigator awards while senior faculty members are increasingly being duly recognized with national and international awards for their academic achievements.
What distinguishes UH from most other premier research universities is that, in addition to pursuing fundamental research, we are committed to doing translational research for societal benefit. The translational research concept now resonates throughout UH, from faculty to students, from undergraduates to graduates, from laboratories to classrooms and from proofs of concept to business plans.
All of these record-breaking milestones have been achieved by our faculty in spite of declining federal funding and other challenging circumstances. Our faculty members are truly resilient! They are defying many odds and moving forward to achieve milestones that others see as impossible.
In short, we have created an exciting environment and an entrepreneurial culture. For the past three years since my appointment, my focus has been hiring talented faculty, building world-class research infrastructures, vigorously developing multidisciplinary research agendas, securing revenues to enhance our research enterprise, fostering an entrepreneurial environment and extending our already productive collaborations with the Texas Medical Center and Houstonâ€™s energy sector. While many institutions are challenged with sustaining their capacity, UH is embracing a bold vision to enhance our Tier One research status and become an internationally recognized premier research university. To that end, we have achieved several major goals: Our research expenditures for 2013 reached $131 million; our royalty revenue increased to $16.6 million; our citation index is comparable to some members of the Association of American Universities; and we recently recruited five additional members of the National Academies. Our royalty revenue has positioned us as the topranked institution among public universities without medical colleges. Likewise, a record number of invention disclosures
To expand our research capacity, we recently completed two state-of-the-art research buildings and will soon break ground on two more. We have also increased operations at the UH Energy Research Park, an 80acre tract of land that is home to 700,000 square-feet of facilities, and created an â€œinnovation ecosystemâ€? by energizing faculty and students alike. This is just the beginning of an exciting era at the University of Houston. I am so fortunate and privileged to work with many distinguished scholars throughout the university who have earned national and international reputations. I often say that I have the best and most rewarding job in the world. I hope the glimpse of our research activities that you get from this magazine demonstrates how justified my sentiments are.
Rathindra N. Bose, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer, University of Houston System Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer, University of Houston
National academy showcase These Members Of The UH Faculty Are Justly Celebrated For Their Scholarly Acumen, Industrious Research And Educational Dedication. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) member J. J. Azar is a distinguished adjunct professor with the UH Cullen College of Engineering. During his 27-year career with the University of Tulsa, he held the position of Director of Drilling Research Projects, a cooperative program supported by major oil and gas companies worldwide. NAE member and distinguished adjunct professor of mechanical engineering Benton Baugh has more than 50 years of experience in oilfield and subsea systems and is recognized for his design and development of oilfield equipment. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) member Paul C.W. Chu is founding director and chief scientist of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. His work has resulted in the publication of more than 590 papers in refereed journals. NAE member and Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture professor Joseph Colaco is a leading specialist in building structures worldwide. His company, CBM Engineers Inc., is responsible for building the JPMorgan Chase Tower and Williams Tower in Houston, as well as highrises across the globe.
NAE member and distinguished adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Charles Cutler is recognized for the invention, development and commercial implementation of a new generation digital process control technology. NAE member and former NASA astronaut and engineer Bonnie J. Dunbar leads UH STEM Center. Dunbar, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, will spearhead the growth of STEM programs at the college level and in the larger K-12 community.
NAE member and UH Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History John Lienhard is also an author and voice of “The Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a Houston Public Media program. His engineering awards are matched by his broadcast nods, including two Crystal Microphone awards.
NAE member, professor and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair John Lee has authored four best-selling engineering textbooks. He was the lead engineer on the SEC’s revised rules for reporting petroleum reserves.
in the nation.
NAE member and interim Director of Chemical Engineering Dan Luss brought that department to national prominence as director from 1975-1995. When he won UH’s Farfel Award, the department was rated among the best
NAE member Anestis Veletsos is the Brown & Root Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, and a two-time winner of the Norman Medal, the highest award given by the American Society of Civil Engineers for papers published in its journals. NAE member Kaspar Willam is a recognized national and international authority on structural mechanics and materials in civil engineering.
NAS and Nobel Assembly member Jan-Åke Gustafsson leads the team to research and create next-generation pharmaceuticals and medical technologies at a world-class center established by UH and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute. Gustafsson teaches as a distinguished professor at both the Department of Biology and Biochemistry and the Department of Chemistry at UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. carcinogens in water.
NAE member and Cullen Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering James M. Symons joined UH in 1982, after working with the federal government for 20 years on preventing
TCRC INVESTORS TARGETING TECH STARTUPS AT UH The University of Houston has signed a deal with a group of investors to commercialize technologies created by its faculty, boosting the UH Energy Research Park (ERP) as a focal point for entrepreneurial activity in the Houston region. The partnership will be worth as much as $25 million, including $15 million for a new building at ERP, the Center for University Entrepreneurship, which will house laboratories and startup businesses. The agreement involves three entrepreneurs who have formed the Texas Collegiate Regional Center (TCRC). It includes a venture capital fund that will attract funding in part from foreign investors through the EB-5 visa program. Rathindra Bose, the University’s vice president and vice chancellor for research and technology transfer, said the arrangement offers value for both UH and the city, as well as investors, because it will more firmly establish the ERP as a base for technology incubation. “It’s not just the technologies, it’s the whole ecosystem,” Bose said. “The city is going to benefit because this is going to be about new technologies. Some of them are going to employ hundreds or thousands of people in the years to come.” David Franklin, one of the TCRC principals and executive vice president at Consumer Media Network, said business people and inventors often speak different languages, making it a challenge to create a successful company. “Bridging the language gap between business minds and academic minds is just the first challenge of many in commercializing technology,” he said. “By working through questions about license terms, funding, space, process and structure up front, we think this first-of-its-kind partnership between UH and TCRC will turbocharge our ability to bring great technologies to market.” The agreement calls for TCRC to invest a minimum of $3 million, and as much as $10 million, in technologies developed by UH faculty. The company
may also invest in outside technologies. The University may invest its own money in its technologies, but won’t invest in outside technologies, Bose said. The University and individual faculty members still would be able to form agreements with other companies. The advantage of this deal, Bose said, is that it would encourage investment in technologies developed by a greater number of faculty inventors and would require that the work remain in Houston. Bose said those two concepts were crucial to making the deal work. “Most investors want to invest in one or two technologies,” he said. “Many want to move the technology elsewhere to develop it.” His argument was simple: Investing in multiple technologies would minimize risk, because one or more of the investments were likely to pay off. “It took a long time because I needed to convince people that this strategy was better in the long term.” An investment board, with appointees from both TCRC and UH, will determine which technologies are chosen. Mark Clarke, associate vice president for technology transfer at UH, said initial funding will likely be between $250,000 and $1 million. The University already provides some incubator space for startup companies at ERP, but Clarke said that space is already at a premium. Beyond the new building, to be known as the Center for University Entrepreneurship, and even beyond the money they will invest, Clarke said their expertise in launching startup companies will be invaluable. “They are all serial entrepreneurs,” he said of the TCRC principals. “They have the ability to create startup companies in Houston. This is a deliberate way to help expand Houston as a technical hub. For us, it provides a place for our faculty and students to work, for our faculty to invent.” —Jeannie Kever
Nothing to Sneeze At Researcher Confirms Saharan Dust Contributes to Houston’s Air Quality Woes When Shankar Chellam saw satellite pictures of swirling Saharan dust clouds, it raised his eyebrows, and it raised some serious questions. How much impact did the Saharan dust have on Houston’s air? Is it more toxic than our homegrown dust? Chellam, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering, has been searching for answers to those and similar questions. Clouds of African dust often migrate across the Atlantic Ocean during summer months, affecting Houston’s air quality from mid-June through mid-September. Whipped up by sandstorms in northwest Africa and carried by trade winds, the dust takes about 10 days to two weeks to reach the United States and, ultimately, Houston, where air quality has been an ongoing issue. Chellam became interested after he noticed “the most curious coincidence” as he was collecting data on industrial air pollution outside plants along the Houston Ship Channel a few years ago. Chellam, who is collaborating with Joseph Prospero, professor emeritus of marine and atmospheric chemistry at the University of Miami, began
the project expecting that the plants would emit a constant amount of pollution, as measured from just beyond their property lines. But he discovered that on some days they emitted relatively little, while emissions were much higher on other days. Then, in an aha moment, he noticed that one period with a large variation coincided with an influx of Saharan dust. Determining the actual impact of the Saharan dust required scientific detective work. Chellam and his team determined the “fingerprint” of the African dust, allowing them to differentiate it from other types of pollutants in their samples: industrial dust, vehicle pollutants and smoke from wildfires, among other things. In time, they were able to determine that a spike in pollution levels was indeed connected to the arrival of Saharan dust. A paper on those findings appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Chellam, whose research does not extend into health impact, said he would expect it to affect people with asthma and other respiratory problems. “But clearly more research is needed,” he said. —Jeannie Kever
Partner Abuse & Food Issues
Texas Obesity Research Center Study Explores Link Women who experience physical, mental or sexual abuse at the hands of their partners have an increased likelihood of being food insecure. That’s the finding of research conducted by UH’s Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC), which may prove valuable to those creating interventions for these populations. “The bridge between the two issues is depression,” said assistant professor and TORC researcher Daphne Hernandez. “Our study found that women experiencing intimate partner violence are more likely to be depressed, which impacts their ability to ensure a food-secure household.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Core Food Security Module, “food insecurity” reflects rationing, portion control and inability to offer families balanced meals. Hernandez followed data from nearly 1,700 women involved in a romantic relationship (married or cohabitating with a partner) who also had experienced intimate partner violence (physical, mental and/ or sexual).
She found that mothers who experienced intimate partner violence were at 44 percent greater odds of experiencing depression. Additionally, households in which mothers experienced depression were twice as likely to experience food insecurity. “It appears that depression may impact mothers’ motivation to obtain and prepare food due to their decreased appetite, mental and physical fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed,” she said. “Additionally, the moms’ feelings of helplessness, brought on by the violence they experienced, may challenge them to access the proper support.” The goal of this study was to increase the understanding of how the family environment and women’s health impact the lives of families with young children. She says this information may prove valuable for those organizations charged with supporting families in times of crisis. —Marisa Ramirez
Hand damage from type 2 diabetes confirmed
Damage to hands has not commonly been associated with type 2 diabetes. We tend to think of the harm the disease does to feet and legs. But new research from the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance found impairments in dexterity and sensory function in the hands of type 2 diabetes (T2D) patients. The study marks the first time such results have been documented in the T2D population. “It’s a very basic concept that no one’s looked at before. No one has examined what it is like if a patient living with type 2 diabetes touches an object compared to someone who’s healthy. Is it different? It really is,” said assistant professor and researcher Stacey Gorniak. “We’re not just seeing the traditional diabetic issues with the feet and the legs, but we’re actually seeing effects to the hands. We found changes to the central nervous system that are not correlated with disease duration or disease severity, but simply due to the presence of the disease.” Type 2 diabetes is a disease that impacts 9 percent of the Texas population. Much of the research on diabetic neuropathy—the nerve disorders, such as numbness, pain or tingling, caused by diabetes—has focused on the lower extremities. Gorniak, who studies how hand function is impacted by chronic health issues, conducted an evaluation of the fingertip and hand function in men and women. The battery of tests conducted include traditional clinical evaluations and also a video game-like computer program to measure how participants interacted with hand-held items. Evaluations were conducted at the UH Center for Neuromotor and Biomechanics Research at the National Center for Human Performance in the Texas Medical Center. —Marisa Ramirez
Treating prostate cancer with Metabolic therapies signaling is still active and plays a large role in the cancer’s progression. So, both androgen receptors and the processes downstream of the receptor remain viable targets for therapeutic intervention. Unfortunately, it is unclear which specific downstream processes actually drive the disease and, therefore, what should be targeted. Frigo, an assistant professor with the UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling (CNRCS), has set his sights on a particular cascade of biochemical reactions inside the cell. Focusing specifically on an enzyme known as AMPK, which is considered a master regulator of metabolism, Frigo and his team have demonstrated that androgens do have the capacity to take control of this enzyme’s molecular signals.
University of Houston (UH) scientist Daniel Frigo and his team are working to develop the next generation of prostate cancer therapies, which are targeted at metabolism. Since prostate cancer relies on androgens for growth and survival, androgen ablation therapies are the standard of care for late-stage disease. While patients initially respond favorably, most experience a relapse within two years, at which time limited treatment options exist. At this stage, known as castration-resistant prostate cancer, androgendeprivation therapies are no longer effective. But androgen receptor
“These results emphasize the potential utility of developing metabolictargeted therapies directed toward this signaling cascade for the treatment of prostate cancer,” he explained. “We look forward to exploring this and other metabolic pathways further in order to develop the next generation of cancer therapies.” The Frigo lab is one of several within CNRCS concentrated on the role of nuclear receptors in cancer prevention and treatment. His team has long studied the androgen receptor, which turns on or off various signaling pathways. Frigo believes these pathways hold the potential for better cancer treatments. Targeting these underexplored metabolic pathways for the development of novel therapeutics, Frigo’s ultimate goal is to unlock more effective and less harmful cancer treatment alternatives. —Lisa Merkl
House Keeping For many, homeownership begins with the picket fence … but ends in foreclosure. Researchers from the UH Hobby Center for Public Policy (HCPP) examined the factors that contribute to Houston-area foreclosures – and the programs and policies needed to prevent them. “This study not only examines an important social issue, but also contributes to the way we study foreclosures,” said Jim Granato, professor and chair of HCPP. “The team we assembled developed a pilot study surveying the same individuals over different points in time. It introduced many challenges, not the least of which was a hard-to-track survey population, but the benefits of examining the reasons an individual’s circumstance changes can serve as a base of knowledge that could contribute to meaningful policy initiatives.” The Houston Housing Study was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The 16-month study examined households in five Houston communities: Third Ward, East End, Southwest Houston, West Houston and the FM1960 area. Respondents answered survey questions at different points in time to examine their situations. Buying a home can be an overwhelming and complicated endeavor. Most respondents said they had a basic grasp of mortgages, interest rates and inflation. Slightly more than half said they conducted research or sought advice before purchasing a home. Still, 36 percent of respondents applied for loans more than once —some up to 10 times—saying bad credit histories blocked them. Faced with foreclosure, more than 80 percent say they had no “rainy day fund” for emergencies. “An increase in financial literacy benefits the homeowner, definitely,” Granato said. “Public and private institutions should take a more active role in advising about the risks of taking out a mortgage and the need to create back-up plans.” Among the study’s other findings:
On average, foreclosure began seven years after the home purchase
90 percent of respondents were employed when purchasing a home, but only 46 percent remained employed when the foreclosure process began
63 percent say financial problems with credit cards began before foreclosure
61 percent of respondents say income loss due to unforeseen medical expenses led to foreclosure
Financial problems continued after foreclosure with 54 percent saying their utilities had been cut off; 23 percent lacked money for food
37 percent of respondents thought government incentives encouraged lenders to take advantage of homebuyers
“For many, investing in a home is the most important financial decision they’ll make,” Granato said. “There are signs and triggers that foreclosure is a threat, and policies should be implemented to detect them and provide assistance before the foreclosure process even begins.” —Marisa Ramirez
Splitting Water, Creating Energy Nanocatalyst and Sunlight Unlock Power Source Researchers from the University of Houston have identified a catalyst that can quickly generate hydrogen from water using sunlight, potentially creating a clean and renewable source of energy. Their research, published online in Nature Nanotechnology, involved the use of cobalt oxide nanoparticles to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Jiming Bao, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UH, said the research discovered a new photocatalyst and demonstrated the potential of nanotechnology in engineering a material’s property, although more work remains to be done. Photocatalytic water-splitting experiments have been tried since the 1970s, Bao said, but this was the first to use cobalt oxide and the first to use neutral water under visible light at a high energy conversion efficiency without co-catalysts or sacrificial chemicals. The project involved researchers from UH, along with those from Sam Houston State University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Texas State University, Carl Zeiss Microscopy LLC and Sichuan University. Researchers prepared the nanoparticles in two ways, using femtosecond laser ablation and through mechanical ball milling. Despite some differences, Bao said both worked equally well. Different sources of light were used, ranging from a laser to white light simulating the solar spectrum. He said he would expect the reaction to work equally well using natural sunlight. Once the nanoparticles are added and light applied, the water separates into hydrogen and oxygen almost immediately, producing twice as much hydrogen as oxygen, as expected from the 2:1 hydrogen to oxygen ratio in H2O water molecules, Bao said. The experiment has potential as a source of renewable fuel, but at a solar-to-hydrogen efficiency rate of about 5 percent, the conversion rate is still too low to be commercially viable. Bao suggested a more feasible efficiency rate would be about 10 percent, meaning that 10 percent of the incident solar energy will be converted to hydrogen chemical energy by the process. The work, supported by the Welch Foundation, will lead to future research, he said, including the question of why cobalt oxide nanoparticles have such a short lifespan. —Jeannie Kever
Thirsty for an Explanation Study Links Appeal of Glossy to Our Innate Need for Fresh Water Ever wonder why people take a shine to shiny objects? Fascinating new research recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology by a University of Houston professor and two colleagues from Ghent University in Belgium presents an evolutionary theory on why people are attracted to glossy surfaces. The authors — Vanessa Patrick of UH’s C. T. Bauer College of Business and Mario Pandelaere and Katrien Meert of Ghent University — suggest the appeal may be a reflection of mankind’s age-old quest for fresh water to ensure survival. “Since fresh water has a shiny surface, being drawn to shiny surfaces may have increased the probability of finding fresh water sources and thus have increased chances of survival,” they write. To support their hypothesis, the authors conducted a set of six studies that established the preference for glossy in both adults and children. They then delved into the reason behind this attraction, ruling out alternative suggestions. The authors also cite previous research demonstrating that infants tend to prefer to lick glossy objects over dull ones. The infants and toddlers even crouch on their hands and knees to do so — a posture that mirrors the drinking of water in natural habitats. “This paper shows that our preference for glossy might be deep-rooted and very human,” says Patrick, a Bauer College associate professor of marketing. “Despite our sophistication and progress as a species, we are still drawn to things that serve our innate needs — in this case, the need for water.” Patrick believes the research could have practical business applications, particularly in marketing. “Given the globalization of business, marketers are in need of human universals that they can rely on,” she said. “Knowing that the preference for glossy is innate (not cultural) could help a marketer create packaging, logos, brand signatures and product designs that would be effective regardless of cultural differences.” —Wendell Brock
! @!!?# @
Online Comments Get Hateful When Nobody Knows Your Name Anyone who’s ever been flamed in an online comment section by an anonymous troll may already suspect this. Now there’s research to prove it. In a study titled “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards,” University of Houston assistant professor Arthur D. Santana at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication found a significant correlation between anonymity and civility. Comparing the tone of thousands of online comments posted by anonymous and non-anonymous users following online newspaper stories, Santana found that 53.3 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful. Only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil. “Anonymity has a long history in journalism dating back to the beginning of U.S. newspapers. In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin used the pseudonym Silence Dogood to get his opinion published after being denied several times with his real name,” said Santana. “It has long been seen as a valuable way to express an opinion, however unpopular.” At play is the so-called “online disinhibition effect,” which predicts that when people’s identity is hidden, their actions or words have no consequences, thus their inhibitions drop. Online, under the cloak of anonymity, people are more likely to behave in ways they ordinarily would not if their identity was intact.
“One of the benefits of online anonymity is that it allows people to express their views, uninhibited, especially if it is an unpopular opinion,” Santana said. “It’s when commenting descends into hateful language, threats or racism that the conversation breaks down and any benefits of constructive dialogue goes away.” Santana observed that non-anonymous commenters were nearly three times as likely to post civil comments. He found that 44 percent of nonanonymous commenters posted civil comments following news articles compared to 15 percent of anonymous commenters. “In short, when anonymity was removed, civility prevailed,” he said. Vexed with an overwhelming number of uncivil comments that threaten to undermine the value of their commenting forums, newspapers are increasingly disallowing anonymity by making readers sign in with their Facebook account; 48.9 percent of the 137 largest U.S. newspapers have disallowed anonymity in their commenting forums, 41.6 percent allow anonymity and 9.4 percent do not have forums, Santana found. Santana is a former newspaper journalist who spent 14 years as a reporter and editor in newsrooms across the country, including the San Antonio Express-News, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post. —Melissa Carroll
UH launches Texas Digital Humanities Consortium
conversations and collaborations among faculty and students at member universities. At UH, that initiative is led by faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, including Casey Dué Hackney, director of classical studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages; Natalie Houston, associate professor of English; Rex Koontz, director of the School of Art; and Cameron Buckner, the CLASS postdoctoral fellow in digital humanities. “Applying computational methods to traditionally humanistic questions allows researchers to see information, data and patterns they couldn’t see before,” Buckner said. Tapping Into an Older Tradition According to Buckner, the field of digital humanities has been gaining attention in academia since the early 2000s when cuttingedge computational methods became readily available in the humanities. It also taps into a much older tradition of “humanities computing” that can be traced back to Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest who was one of the first to see the potential of computers for working with text in the 1940s. Responding to this growing momentum, the National Endowment for the Humanities began an initiative to award digital humanities grants in 2006, which later evolved into the Office of Digital Humanities in 2008. At UH, Dué Hackney, Houston and Koontz are recipients of NEH digital humanities grants. Koontz’s project, “Vwire,” is an online tool where a computer visually sorts, compares and categorizes artwork. Currently, “Vwire” is examining ancient masks from the Teotihuacan archeological site in central Mexico. Similar to “Vwire,” Houston’s project uses modern technology for visual analysis. Her “Visual Page” project is an open source computer program that performs digital analysis of the graphic elements specific to Victorian-era texts. This program not only examines the actual text on the page, but also the use of white space in these historical texts. She started with a test case of approximately 60,000 page images from 300 books of poetry printed between 1860 and 1880.
DIGITIZING THE HUMANITIES
The University of Houston has joined forces with four other Texas universities to launch the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium (TDHC), an organization that promotes computer-assisted database research in the humanities disciplines and connects digital researchers at universities and across the nation. The new group held its inaugural conference April 10-12 at UH. In addition to UH, the other founding members of the consortium are Rice University, Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Texas. Each institution has its own digital humanities initiative. The consortium was organized to increase awareness of the research and teaching in digital humanities in Texas institutions and to facilitate scholarly
The “Homer Multitext” project, headed by Dué Hackney, is examining the oldest complete version of The Iliad, dated around the 10th century A.D. By not only examining the text itself, but also the centuries-old, ‘scolia,’ or comments written on the actual manuscript from past scholars, the Homer Multitext offers free, digital access to a library of texts, images and tools that allows researchers to engage with the Homeric tradition. Plans to Grow The Texas Digital Humanities Consortium has plans to grow and add more institutes of higher learning that host digital humanities researchers. “Digital humanities is a rich interdisciplinary area of research that brings together researchers from many different fields,” said Houston. “As our conference demonstrated, TDHC is creating important opportunities for dialogue and scholarly interchange.” —Monica Byars
mechanisms that enable these bacteria to evade immune defense mechanisms and proliferate inside a host. “The DOD is interested in different types of threat reduction for chemical and, of course, biological threats,” May said. “We are collaborating with investigators at the Air Force Research Laboratory/ Henry M. Jackson Foundation for Military Medicine at the WrightPatterson Air Force Base in Ohio to develop mathematical models to see how exactly pathogens interact with the host.” When F. tularensis infects a host, for example, there are certain things the host is doing to try to prevent the bacteria from proliferating. At the same time, there are certain things the pathogen is doing in an attempt to survive. Trying to understand this crucial dynamic is important in trying to predict infection outcomes and, in due course, to develop drugs and vaccines for the pathogens that could become potential bioterror agents.
TAKING THREATS SERIOUSLY Computer Modeling Protects Us Against BioWeapons Today, the specter of chemical and biological threats is not only a danger on the battlefield, but also of considerable concern on the home front. How can we protect our soldiers and our citizens? How can we treat them if something should happen? Can we develop vaccinations to protect against these hazards? These alarming questions – and a keen search for answers – preoccupy Elebeoba May. Funded by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Defense Threat Reduction Agency, May – who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH – is using mathematical and biological modeling to gain insight into the dynamics of host-pathogen interactions and to aid the development of safeguards and solutions against potential biothreat agents. “Basically, I was a computer engineering student with minimal interest in computer hardware and a closet pseudo-biologist with minimal patience for laboratory work,” she says, clarifying her somewhat unconventional background. That rather uncommon combination led May to seizing an opportunity to study biological systems using mathematical tools. May is now focusing on methods to understand the bacterial agents responsible for such scourges as Tularemia and the Black Plague. While these diseases are not all that commonly talked about in this day and age, there is a very real concern that both can be resurrected as biological weapons. The causative agents of these disquieting diseases – the bacteria Francisella tularensis and Yersinia pestis, respectively – are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potential Class A bioterrorism agents, meaning they are highly contagious and potentially lethal. The May Lab is trying to pinpoint the biochemical response
“While our model will encompass both the host and pathogen, the main focus will be on the pathogen side of the equation,” May said. “We will look at how the infectious agent responds to a host’s defense system – specifically how the host limits the amount of iron available to the invader. As do humans, bacteria use iron to survive, aiding many life-sustaining processes, such as making food and breaking it down. Limiting iron, therefore, can cause a major problem for the pathogen.” For that reason, one of the host response mechanisms the researchers are studying, using empirical and theoretical models, is iron deprivation. While the pathogens need iron, they don’t make their own. Rather, the bacteria acquire iron from the host. May’s research team is looking at how the pathogens take iron from their hosts, what the host is doing to deprive the pathogen of iron, how the pathogen responds to that deprivation and then, ultimately, what tools and algorithms they need to mathematically model the dynamics of these iron-centric host-pathogen interactions. With several biochemical pathways involved in iron modulation in pathogen and host cells, the researchers will narrow their focus to a few key processes and systematically build on preliminary models to construct more accurate representations of iron dynamics. In particular, May and her group are researching “siderophores,” which are small iron-binding compounds secreted by bacteria. According to May, the process by which F. tularensis acquires iron is not completely understood, so it’s thought siderophores may be one way this pathogen is trying to solve its iron-deprivation problem. Empirically based mathematical modeling, says May, is a promising approach to understanding this relationship between the host and pathogen, explaining that modeling biomolecular systems and processes helps aggregate current qualitative and quantitative knowledge. Multiscale-systems modeling provides an efficient platform for exploring infection dynamics and potential outcomes. Additionally, the ability to supplement empirical studies with predictive modeling to guide hypothesis generation and testing can provide a quicker path to prophylactic and therapeutic discoveries for battling infection and bioterrorism. “You cannot explore every single scenario experimentally. You can’t knock out every single gene or expose every mutant to every single type of environment. It’s just not practical or efficient,” May explains. “Our goal is to use this model as a tool to explore these different experimental conditions without having to actually go there.” —Lisa Merkl
New Material Powers Waste Heat Transfer to Electricity
University of Houston physicists have discovered a new thermoelectric material offering high performance at temperatures ranging from room temperature up to 300 degrees Celsius, or about 573 degrees Fahrenheit. “This new material is better than the traditional material, bismuth telluride, and can be used for waste heat conversion into electricity much more efficiently,” said Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics at UH and the lead author of a paper describing the discovery, published online by Nano Energy. Ren, who is also principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, said the work could be important for clean energy research and commercialization at temperatures of about 300 degrees Celsius. Bismuth telluride has been the standard thermoelectric material since the 1950s and is used primarily for cooling, although it can also be used at temperatures up to 250 C (482 F) for power generation, with limited efficiency. For this discovery, Ren and other members of his lab used a combination of magnesium, silver and antimony to generate electricity from heat using the thermoelectric principle. They added a small amount of nickel, after which Ren said the compound worked even better. The work was done in collaboration with researchers from the UH Department of Chemistry and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Huaizhou Zhao and Jiehe Sui, a member of Ren’s lab whose home institute is the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, were primary contributors. The material works well up to 300 C, Ren said. Work to improve its efficiency is ongoing. The potential for capturing heat – from power plants, industrial smokestacks and even vehicle tailpipes – and converting it into electricity is huge, allowing heat that is currently wasted to be used to generate power. Ren said temperatures there can range from 200 C to 1,000 C. Until now, there hasn’t been a thermoelectric material capable of working once conditions get beyond the lower levels of heat. Much of the demand ranges from 250 C to 300 C, he said. Ren’s lab published a paper last summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences establishing tin telluride with the addition of the chemical element indium as a material capable of converting waste heat to electricity. But tin telluride works best at temperatures higher than about 300 C, or about 573 F, making it important to continue looking for another material that works at lower temperatures. Ren’s group isn’t the first to study the new material, which has not been named but is referred to in the Nano Energy paper as simply MgAgSbbased materials, using the chemical names for the elements used to create it. The paper cites work done in 2012 by M.J. Kirkham, et al; that work used magnesium, silver and antimony in equal parts, Ren said, but resulted in impurities and poor conducting properties. He said his lab found that using slightly less silver and antimony, and mixing the elements separately – putting magnesium and silver first in the ball milling process, adding the antimony after several hours – eliminated the impurities and significantly improved the thermoelectric properties.
A transmission electron microscope image shows the material discovered by the research group led by Zhifeng Ren (above)
“We had much different qualities,” he said. “Better, with no impurities, and smaller grain size, along with much better thermoelectric properties.” —Jeannie Kever
Bad Blood: Making Transfusions Safer Blood transfusions are one of modern medicine’s absolute necessities. A UH biomedical engineer is developing an innovative technology to make them safer. His work is supported by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Today, patients get more than just healthy, well-preserved red blood cells during a transfusion. They also get a number of potentially harmful materials, including the anticoagulant-preservative solution, burst cells and byproducts of cellular metabolism. “Therapeutically, there’s absolutely no reason to transfer any of this into the patient,” said Sergey Shevkoplyas, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “The only thing you need to transfuse into the patient is well-preserved red blood cells. There’s no point to giving you these other potentially toxic materials.” Shevkoplyas is working under an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop a simple device to separate healthy, well-preserved red blood cells from all the other material in the blood bag just before transfusion. Such grants support high-risk/ high-reward projects with potentially transformative impacts. The system Shevkoplyas is developing will consist of two tubes that feed into a plastic device just a few inches in size. One tube will send blood into the device, while another will send saline solution. In the first step, the saline will wash harmful particles and the storage solution off the healthy red blood cells. Next, the
Picture This: IPHONE APP SCREENING DEVICE FOR SKIN CANCER It sounds almost too good to be true: Use your cell phone to take a photo of a suspicious mole or lesion, run it through a special software program and find out within a few seconds if it is likely to be cancerous. But it could make quick and inexpensive screening a reality for millions of people who lack access to medical specialists. A UH
entire mixture will be sent through an array of precisely designed microfluidic channels, where the shape, size and flexibility of healthy red blood cells will allow them to be separated from the particles, damaged cells and storage solution. At that point, the healthy red blood cells, along with saline acting as a transport medium, can be transfused safely into the patient. —Lisa Merkl
professor has created the app, called DermoScreen, which is now being evaluated for further testing at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. George Zouridakis, professor of engineering technology, has worked on the project since 2005, moving it to an application for a mobile phone after the iPhone became ubiquitous. The goal is to provide speedy screening in rural areas or in the developing world, where specialty medical care generally isn’t available. Early testing found the device to be accurate about 85 percent of the time, Zouridakis said, similar to the accuracy rate for dermatologists and more accurate than primary care physicians. Patients would be referred for followup if the lesion were suspected to be cancerous. DermoScreen could be commercialized soon. Investors began expressing interest more than a year ago after a student team from UH’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship produced a business plan that won the $60,000 Grand Prize at the 2013 California Dreamin’ National Business Plan Competition and successfully pitched it in competitions across the country. But Zouridakis, who has additional UH faculty appointments in electrical and computer engineering and in computer science, wanted to wait, both to pursue other diagnostic uses for the technology and to ensure it was as accurate as possible. The testing at MD Anderson is a step toward the latter goal, he said. —Jeannie Kever
President’s Honor Roll ‘We salute these talented members of our UH faculty. Their recent achievements and awards bring considerable respect, renown and recognition to our University.’
President, University of Houston
The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas named Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Physics and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, a recipient of the 2014 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science for his wide-reaching research in improved methods and processes in carbon nanotubes, thermoelectrics, hierarchical zinc oxide nanowires, high temperature superconductivity and molecule delivery/sensing.
National Academy of Inventors
Four UH researchers have been named as fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Meriting the honor are Rathindra N. Bose, Dmitri Litvinov, Zhifeng Ren and Venkat Selvamanickam. Bose, vice president for research and technology transfer for UH and vice chancellor for research and technology transfer for the UH System, discovered a new class of anti-cancer agents, phosphaplatins, that are undergoing clinical trials. Litvinov, vice provost and dean of the UH Graduate School, championed the development of so-called “perpendicular magnetic recording” technology now commonly used in nearly all computer hard drives. Ren was the first to grow aligned carbon nanotube arrays in large scale, to make nanostructured bulk thermoelectric materials with much improved properties, and to synthesize hierarchical zinc oxide nanowires. Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity’s Applied Research Hub, has created and is perfecting superconducting electrical wire that has 300 times the current-carrying capacity of a comparably-sized copper wire. Other members of the NAI at UH are Benton F. Baugh, Paul C. W. Chu and Dan Luss.
Olafs Daugulis, associate professor of chemistry, was named an Arthur C. Cope Scholar by the American Chemical Society for his research in minimizing the steps to change carbon-hydrogen compounds into other compounds. Last year, the Welch Foundation named Daugulis the recipient of the 2013 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research.
Ognjen Miljanic, assistant professor of chemistry, was named a 2013 Cottrell Scholar. Miljanic’s research involves discovering how to duplicate nature’s ability to ‘self-sort’ a mix of compounds into new compounds.
Jody Williams has been selected as a 2014 recipient of the prestigious Olof Palme Medal. Williams, UH Graduate College of Social Work professor and 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was chosen for her work in support of Human Rights and in banning anti-personnel landmines.
H. Julia Hannay
H. Julia Hannay, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Psychology, received the Lifetime Distinguished Career Award from the International Neuropsychological Society, for her contributions to the field of neuropsychology. Hannay is a clinical neuropsychologist and a pioneer in the field of experimental neuropsychology, specializing in the assessment of cognitive functions in children and adults, as well as the cognitive and physiological effects of brain injury and the impact of rehabilitation.
Nicolás Kanellos, UH Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies and director of Arte Público Press, will receive the prestigious 2014 Enrique Anderson Imbert award from the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (North American Academy of the Spanish Language), which recognizes the lifetime achievement of an individual who has contributed to the knowledge and dissemination of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture in the U.S.
Tom Holley, professor and director of the UH Cullen College of Engineering’s petroleum engineering program, has won the Society of Petroleum Engineers Gulf Coast Regional Distinguished Achievement Award for Petroleum Engineering Faculty. The award recognizes petroleum engineering faculty members for excellence in teaching and research, and contributions to the petroleum engineering profession.
The American Academy in Rome has named Abinadi Meza, UH School of Art professor, recipient of the Gilmore D. Clarke/Michael Rapuano Rome Prize, which recognizes excellence in arts and humanities, and rewards
recipients with fellowships and stipends that support residencies in Rome. Meza was selected for his contributions to the field of visual arts.
Ange Mlinko, UH Creative Writing Program assistant professor, has been named a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. Mlinko, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in poetry and poetry criticism, has published four collections of poetry that have earned her national acclaim. Her latest book, “Marvelous Things Overheard”, was named one the best poetry books of 2013 by The Boston Globe and The New Yorker.
Lars Grabow, of the College of Engineering, has received a Department of Energy Early Career Award, to pursue research in finding a costeffective way to reduce oxygen content in bio-oil. The National Science Foundation has to-date announced as recipients of a NSF Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award Jeremy May, of chemistry, and Megan Robertson, of engineering. Other recent recipients of a CAREER award include the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ Ognjen Miljanic, Angela Moeller and Timothy Cooper. And from the Cullen College of Engineering Jacinta Conrad, Wei-Chuan Shih, Jiming Bao, Debora Rodrigues, Gila Stein, Jeffrey Rimer, and Haleh Ardebili. National Institutes of Health Young Investigator award recipients are Peter Norton, Amie Grills-Taquechel and Candice Alfano of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences; Mini Das of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Romi Ghose of the College of Pharmacy; Tammy Tolar of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics; Daniel Frigo of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling; and Isabel Torres of the Graduate College of Social Work. Named Fulbright Scholars by the Fulbright Scholar Program are Driss Benhaddou of the College of Technology, Eric Bittner of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Marta Fairclough of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
Margaret Cheung, associate professor of physics, has been elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS). Cheung, who studies the behavior of biological molecules in cells using physics theories, modeling and computer simulations, joins UH faculty APS fellows Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Carlos Ordonez, Chin-Sen Ting, and Peter Vekilov.
For her efforts in promoting the French language and culture in the United States, Claudine Giacchetti, professor of French and director of the French Program at UH, has been named as a Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (Knight in the Order of Academic Palms).
The European Geosciences Union has named UH geology professor Kevin C. A. Burke recipient of the 2014 Arthur Holmes Medal & Honorary Membership. The Medal is given to scientists who have achieved exceptional international standing in solid Earth geosciences.
Joseph A. Pratt, UH Cullen Professor of History and Business, has been awarded the 2014 Piper Professor Award from the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation, which recognizes superior teaching at the college level in Texas. —Maribel Salazar
NIH Names UH, Partners as Center of Excellence for Environmental Health Globally, more than one quarter of all deaths and disease can be attributed to the environment. UH has joined with partners across the Texas A&M System and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) to create the Center for Translational Environmental Health Research (CTEHR), a cross-institutional initiative to promote integrated environmental health research and translate research advances into practices that can improve human health. CTEHR has been named by the National Institutes of Health as the newest national Center of Excellence in Environmental Health Science. “TMC is the most important health-related district in the world, but until now, no entity has existed to lead the world-class research performed here in the area of human environmental health,” said Dr. Brett P. Giroir, executive vice president and CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center. “Through their combined efforts, CTEHR will harness the unparalleled scientific capabilities of this resource-rich location to promote new discoveries, and then translate these discoveries into preventions and treatments that could save millions of lives worldwide.” Dr. Jan-Åke Gustafsson, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at UH and a member of CTEHR, said he would bring his lab’s expertise in environmental toxicants and endocrine disrupters to bear on the new center’s mission of improving society’s understanding of environmental influences on human health. “In particular, we will contribute our knowledge of those environmental factors such as BPA that influence the nuclear hormone receptors, an area of significant current public health concern,” Gustafsson said. Center members are focused on translating research advances in environmental causes of disease to improve detection, prevention and management of diseases induced or worsened by environmental exposures. Through a novel bench-tobedside-to-community approach, the center will accelerate the process of advancing basic scientific discoveries and translating them into treatment and prevention approaches for high-risk individuals, including vulnerable populations such as children and low socio-economic individuals. “We expect the center will build teams to address complex questions in health and of concern to communities both locally and nationally,” said Les Reinlib, director for the Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the NIH. —Jeannie Kever
Q&A: Taking On the Challenges of Tech Transfer UH Has Increased Its Commercialization Results Dramatically – AVP Mark Clarke Explains How and Why … Basic research – pure inquiry for its own sake – extends the limits of knowledge and serves as an invaluable source for better ways to interpret our world. But there is also merit in purposeful research, that which focuses on solving specific problems and addressing particular issues. The results of such applied research can provide society with valuable resources and useful technologies. Public research institutions like the University of Houston face the challenge of commercializing the intellectual property (IP) created by its researchers in ways that best benefit both society and the University. Mark S. F. Clarke, UH associate vice president for technology transfer, discusses those challenges.
While there has always been a certain level of commercialization of research and technology transfer at UH, is it accurate to say the emphasis on that has been increasing?
Yes, we have definitely been emphasizing this. You can see the results of that in the dramatic increases in both the size of UH’s IP portfolio, which continues to expand rapidly reaching a total of 158 issued and 212 pending U.S. patents in 2013, and in UH’s licensing income, which has almost doubled in just three years, from $9 million to nearly $17 million. Recently, UH was ranked No. 1 nationally in royalty revenue among public universities without a medical school.
What prompted this emphasis?
There are numerous reasons. Certainly our commitment to achieving Tier One status was a significant factor. Basically, there’s a realization that creating a more entrepreneurial culture on campus with regard to commercialization and technology transfer promotes UH’s overall academic and research mission to create new knowledge and disseminate it for the good of society. Harnessing this intellectual capital and innovative spirit allows the University to enhance both the academic experiences available to our students while expanding the research base of our faculty.
That’s an ambitious concept, but how do you actually implement that? We are very aware achieving our ultimate goal requires a “cultural” change on campus that includes recognition by our faculty and students that there are many “value-added” advantages of being part of an “entrepreneurial university.” To begin with, we are providing specific physical infrastructure as well as procedural pathways to “success” that were previously unavailable, such as increased recognition for faculty who create IP, facilitating faculty/student partnerships for commercialization of Universityowned IP and direct support for the formation of faculty and/or student startup/spinoff companies at UH. One concrete example of how we leverage our existing strengths, such as our cutting-edge research programs in STEM and our world-class entrepreneurship program in UH’s Bauer College of Business, is our “STEM-B” approach to technology commercialization. STEM-B encourages a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and value creation by both our faculty and students by combining our strengths in multiple disciplines. Division of Research-initiated collaborative programs, which combine the research, technical and entrepreneurial expertise that has existed at UH for many years, are showing great promise. These programs not only create unique “real-world” academic opportunities for our entrepreneurial students to work with real
technologies that have commercial potential but also open up opportunities for our STEM students to become entrepreneurs in addition to being scientists or engineers.
UH wasn’t doing that before?
Not to this extent. This support infrastructure is now available to faculty and students throughout the process, from providing help with generating realistic commercialization plans for faculty seeking research funding for technology development, obtaining patent protection on IP that’s created, seeking licenses, industrial partners or investors to commercially develop that IP, coordinating on-campus programs designed to partner faculty and students in developing business plans. We have also spent time in attracting external resources that can be leveraged to help support innovation and entrepreneurship at UH. For example, we have recently signed an MOU with an outside venture capital firm, Texas Collegiate Regional Center, which will be initially investing $25 million in the UH entrepreneurial ecosystem. TCRC’s initial investment will consist of $15 million in infrastructure and $10 million of early-stage investment capital for development of UH technologies. Successful commercialization and market entry of our technologies will lead to significant revenue streams and return on investment (ROI) for the University. That revenue stream can then be re-invested into the research endeavor in order to foster and support additional research that leads to even more innovation. As such, innovation, technology commercialization and entrepreneurship (like STEM-B) become vital components in our overall strategy for increasing research expenditures at UH.
Can you discuss that strategy?
Historically, the majority of research expenditures at UH have been generated by the more traditional, federally funded single investigator model. But to meet to the challenge of increasing our research expenditures to $200M by 2020, Division of Research must provide a research environment at UH capable of supporting and sustaining not only single investigators but also – more importantly – largescale, multiyear, multi-investigator, multi-disciplinary research projects. In addition, as we face reductions in overall federal and state research funding levels, UH must significantly expand the amount of research funding that it attracts from nongovernmental sources, such as nonprofit entities and industrial partners. The reality is that this cannot be achieved without a realignment of the scale, type and sources of research funding that must be obtained to achieve this goal.
LICENSING INCOME AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
$4.4m $1.1m FY2008
Of course, UH is competing with a number of other institutions in the same arena…?
Yes, it’s highly competitive. But one unique and highly visible means by which UH can distinguish itself when competing for such research funds is our demonstrably successful infrastructure for promoting technology transfer and commercialization efforts. Recognition by funding agencies of the significant “value-added” created by UH’s institutional culture and infrastructure will generate more success – both in garnering new or additional funding from programs that specifically require technology transfer and commercialization activities and in more fundamental research proposals where the ultimate goal of the funding agency is to provide products and processes of use to wider society. Having such administrative and physical “pathways” in place also provides significant benefits when attracting industry funding through mechanisms other than research grants, such as sponsored research agreements, co-development arrangements or universityindustry partnerships. Continued on page 24
How Do You Mend a Broken Heart? By Converting Fat Cells Into Stem Cells That Can Help That Vital Organ Repair Itself, Says One UH Researcher
by Jeannie Kever There has been little time to savor the successes of the moment as Robert Schwartz and members of his lab push relentlessly toward their goal: clinical trials he expects will show that common fat cells, treated with two proteins, can convert quickly into stem cells capable of helping damaged heart muscle repair itself. That stunning development could come within a year, a huge step forward in the treatment of heart disease, while also offering promise in a range of muscular, neurological and other disorders. But Schwartz’s impact reaches beyond his own work. He has been involved in one of the most important trends in research during the past decade, as scientists move out of their individual laboratories to collaborate across disciplines and across institutions, doing whatever it takes to solve complicated problems. “Contemporary research is team research. It’s interdisciplinary,” he says. “Research goes faster when you can interact with terrific scientists. You can ask basic questions that lead to clinical applications.”
Schwartz, Cullen Distinguished Professor of biology and biochemistry, arrived at the University of Houston in late 2009, recruited from Texas A&M Health Science Center to help build the University’s biomedical sciences research initiative. He is also director of the Stem Cell Engineering Laboratory at the Texas Heart Institute, a role that helps in building a strong network of researchers from across the Texas Medical Center. His lab, the Center for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Therapeutics, is a sweeping space on the fourth floor of the Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC), where more than two dozen researchers and graduate students also work on drug discovery, including new generation of rho-kinase inhibitors, noncoding RNAs that alter cell lineages and the origin of cancer stem cells. “We’re not just a single-focused group,” he explains. “We’ll do any technology that allows us to find answers. We’re totally unafraid.” Schwartz is recognized for launching the field of myogenesis, or muscle development, in 1981 by defining the regulatory paradigm in
which nonmuscle contractile proteins are switched off during muscle differentiation and replaced by muscle-specific contractile protein isoforms. In the ensuing 33 years, he has continued to make significant discoveries, many of them focused on developmental and genetic aspects of congenital heart disease. Creating Cardiac Stem Cells His current major project involves converting somatic cells into cardiac stem cells. The work, now in small animal testing, involves reprogramming fat stem cells to function as one of three types of cells – cardiac cells, smooth muscle cells or vascular cells, depending on where they are implanted. The concept, once it moves to patients, would be to remove the fat cells via liposuction and centrifuging away the fat cells from their stem cells. Next the fat stem cells are incubated with factors that convert them to cardiac progenitor cells and then inserted into an area of the heart muscle that has been damaged by a heart attack. This allows the stem cells to begin replacing dead heart tissue with healthy muscle and cardiovascular tissue. Working in collaboration with scientists from the Texas Heart Institute, Schwartz’s team reported in 2012 that they had successfully reprogrammed human skin cells to function as heart muscle cells. They used two proteins, ETS2 and MESP1, to see if the proteins would work together to transform skin cells into heart cells. They were pleased to find the treated skin cells began to convert into immature heart muscle cells within two days. The team now is working with fat cells, rather than the skin cells from its original research, but using the same transformational proteins, Schwartz says. Fat cells don’t convert more quickly – both skin cells and fat cells take about two days to convert to stem cells – but using fat cells as a base produces more stem cells. “Simply put, it’s a more robust system,” he says. Although Schwartz and his team are not the only researchers to convert adult cells into stem cells, he says they were the first to demonstrate the ability to convert human skin cells into muscle cells with the fewest factors. The team, along with the University of Houston, the Texas Heart Institute and Texas A&M University, was recently granted a U.S. patent covering the proteins, technology and viruses used to convert any cell to cardiac progenitor cells. Advantage over Embryonic Stem Cells Both skin and fat cells have another advantage compared with embryonic stem cells, once considered the most promising field but long mired in controversy, making it more difficult for scientists to pursue the potential rewards. Using skin or fat cells that can be converted to stem cells avoids moral and ethical issues inherent in the use of embryonic stem cells, Schwartz says, as well as concerns that embryonic stem cells may stimulate cancer growth. And, he notes, they are also more readily available. But for all the focus on the promising use of these fat cells to repair heart damage after a heart attack, that’s only part of what is going on at the Center for Molecular Medicine and Experimental Therapeutics. MESP, one of the factors used to convert the fat cells to stem cells, can also drive blood and muscle development. Recently, Li Chen, one of five faculty members working at the center, has focused on MESP’s role in embryonic pancreas formation, perhaps leading one day to repairing
Professor Robert Schwartz: ‘We’ll do any technology that allows us to find answers.’ Opposite Page: Cardiac progenitor cells are transformed into cardiac muscle cells, potentially allowing a damaged heart to heal itself.
damaged pancreas tissue. Other faculty members working there include Yu Liu, Steven Bark, David Stewart and Peggy Zhang. Important Collaborations There also are other researchers, both inside UH – including biomedical engineer Ravi Birla and James Briggs, associate professor of biology and biochemistry – and outside, including developmental biologist Dr. James Martin from Baylor College of Medicine and Dr. James Willerson, president of the Texas Heart Institute, whom Schwartz cites as being important to collaborations that push the work forward. The fat cells-to-cardiac stem cells work is an example of what researchers call the “lab bench to bedside” phenomenon, and Schwartz is delighted to see that it is really happening. “This is a very important year for us,” he says, “one in which we can actually apply our research to clinical studies. Developing a practical and effective method to generate new heart muscle cells for cardiac repair is one of the truly great needs facing us today. And the broader implications of our research are ever more promising. We believe we’re on a successful path to achieve this – and what could be more exciting than that?”
E H T R E W O P S R E G N A R R A Research in Superconducting Wire and Solar Materials Shows Why UH Is ‘The Energy University’ by Jeannie Kever
When U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz visited the University of Houston’s Energy Research Park this spring, he saw a prime example of the Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy. Programs in petroleum and subsea engineering reinforced the University’s traditional emphasis on conventional forms of energy, but Moniz then went on to tour the National Wind Energy Center, the Superconductor Pilot Manufacturing facility and the Energy Device Fabrication Laboratory. “We think we are going to need all of those resources as we go to a limited carbon future,” he said. “The hydrocarbon revolution has been a huge lift for jobs, and it’s been a huge lift for our economy.” Powerful Research at UH With the continued effort to reduce CO2 emissions, Moniz predicted innovations in superconductivity and renewable energy will be increasingly important. “Hydrocarbons still will play a huge role. So will nuclear. But,” he added, “so will wind, and so will solar.” That’s especially big news at UH, where some of the nation’s top players in solar and superconductivity are engaged in powerful research. Venkat Selvamanickam, for example, who earned his Ph.D. at UH in the early 1990s, has returned as a successful researcher and entrepreneur some 16 years later. “Selva,” as he’s known, develops advanced processing techniques for high-performance materials for energy and electronic applications, including high-temperature superconducting thin film tapes, thin film photovoltaics and flexible electronics. And Alex Freundlich has spent the past two decades researching highefficiency solar energy materials and devices here, arriving on sabbatical from his native France and kept at UH by the considerable opportunities he found. A pioneer in the field of quantum and nano-architectured photovoltaics – a method of generating electrical power by using semiconductors to convert sunlight into direct current electricity – Freundlich develops technologies to make solar power more efficient and more economically feasible.
Center for Superconductivity, describes the power generated by superconductivity this way: “It’s the only thing I can think of, anywhere in the world, that comes close to perpetual motion. It’s like a freeway with no cars in front of you,” he said. Since superconducting materials transport electricity with no electrical resistance, all the power that goes through a superconductor ends up powering something. That would allow utilities to provide more electricity without the need for additional power plants. But translating the conceptual promise of superconductivity into practical reality has been difficult. Selvamanickam has been working successfully to overcome many of the obstacles. The best superconducting material is a ceramic composite – brittle, rather than the flexible traditional copper or aluminum wiring. Selva led the development of technologies to convert that ceramic superconductor into a flexible wire with 300 times the currentcarrying capacity of a comparably sized copper wire. In 2000, he co-founded SuperPower, where he developed a novel method of manufacturing superconducting ribbon. World Performance Records He and his collaborators have set multiple world performance records for using superconducting materials, but they are still not in widespread use. Selvamanickam brought the research division of SuperPower with him when he returned in 2008 to UH, where he continues to work to make superconductors that are cheaper and easier to manufacture, as well as those that can carry more current or be used in specialized applications. Among other projects, a contract with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy of the Department of Energy, calls for improving the performance of the superconducting wire used in wind turbines by a substantial 400 percent.
Together, they reflect the considerable breadth of energy-related research at The Energy University, UH. Paul Chu and Superconductivity Superconductivity has been one of the cornerstones of scientific research at UH since 1987, when physicist Paul Chu discovered a compound that acted as a superconductor – a material that could carry energy without any loss due to resistance – at a relatively high temperature. That relatively high temperature? Minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold, sure, but above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. Chu founded the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, launching a new era of research. Since then, the promise of superconductivity has loomed large for energy applications, because as much as 10 percent of the electricity produced by any source is lost during the transmission between the generating plant and your home or business. Freeway with No Cars Selvamanickam, now the M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas
UH PRESIDENT RENU KHATOR AND ENERGY SECRETARY ERNEST MONIZ TOURING THE ENERGY RESEARCH PARK
‘It’s a Ferrari engine that you’re getting in your Toyota—You’re just getting more power out of it.’ To do that, Selva said researchers are introducing nanoscale defects – particles of nonsuperconducting material measuring just a few billionths of a meter – onto the otherwise pristine material. They are halfway there – they have improved the wire’s performance by a factor of two, and have another year on the contract. The tiny defects allow the wire to carry more current, but Selva said it is exceedingly delicate work. “If you put in too many defects, then it becomes totally useless,” he said. For now, many of the products are still in the prototype phase, as researchers evaluate concerns perceived by energy companies. So far, Selva said, superconducting wires have not shown any risks that could pose a threat to utility companies. Real-life Demonstration A real-life demonstration on the UH campus could offer more evidence. As new buildings on campus strain the University’s power grid, Selva proposed adding a transformer to the power substation at the UH Energy Research Park and installing a new power cable to run power to the main campus. The cable would utilize the superconducting wire, with a conventional backup.
making them less susceptible to disruption from hurricanes and other natural disasters. Once in place and operating, the new cabling will provide a far more efficient conduit to bring power to the campus – and proof positive of the technology’s practical benefits. Of course, Selva’s special wire isn’t limited to simply serving as a better medium for electricity transmission. Most people have encountered superconductors – and the benefits of superconductors – without realizing it. The magnet inside the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment uses superconducting technology to make pictures of organs and structures inside the body, and pharmaceutical companies use it to produce new drugs. High-speed trains use superconducting magnets to propel the cars forward. “The wire we’re developing can be used across a multitude of such applications,” Selva said. “With time, it’s going to happen.” Harvesting Sunlight Alex Freundlich, associate director for research at the Center for Advanced Materials and research professor of physics and electrical and computer engineering, said his current research involves reengineering the core components of solar cells to allow them to better harvest sunlight and generate more electricity, even during cloudy or rainy weather. That could revolutionize the industry, which traditionally has been strongest in the Southwestern United States. Several utility-scale solar plants were recently authorized along the California-Nevada border, and California led the nation in the creation of clean energy jobs in 2013, with 15,397, according to the nonpartisan group Environmental Entrepreneurs. Texas ranked second, with 6,368 new clean energy jobs. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, Freundlich and other researchers in his lab are using quantum engineering to boost the power inside solar cells. These aren’t your father’s rooftop solar panels. “It’s a Ferrari engine that you’re getting in your Toyota,” he said. “You’re just getting more power out of it.” By using multiple stacks of ultra-thin, or nanoscale, materials, researchers are better able to match the device to the distribution of sunlight across the spectrum, circumventing the energy loss that is typically found with semitransparent semiconductor materials. That new process forms what is called a quantum well tandem solar cell. Pushing Efficiency Past 50% Freundlich’s technology already has been used to produce devices with sunlight to electricity conversion efficiencies greater than 40 percent. He predicts his latest research will push that figure above 50 percent, more than twice the efficiency of existing commercial silicon panels. One key factor involves significantly decreasing the amount of critical material in the solar cells – using as much as 100 times less than the material found in traditional silicon technology, making the cells far lighter. That would increase their value for commercial applications in outer space, a field in which Freundlich long has been a key player.
SUPERPOWER’S SUPERCONDUCTING RIBBON DEVELOPED BY PROFESSOR VENKAT SELVAMANICKAM
The ambitious plans tentatively call for the cables to be laid under the railroad tracks at Texas Spur 5, highlighting one major advantage of superconducting cables – they can be placed along or underground,
In fact, he was drawn to Houston by the opportunity to work with NASA, which provided funding to develop and test his quantum well solar cell technology during UH’s Wake Shield Project in 1995. Later collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory found the technology yielded significantly higher radiation tolerance than traditional solar cells, making it a good candidate for long-duration space flights.
PROFESSOR ALEX FREUNDLICH (LEFT): AIMING AT A $1 PER WATT BENCHMARK
PAUL CHU: FOUNDER OF THE TEXAS CENTER FOR SUPERCONDUCTIVITY AT UH
Freundlich’s work also is used in other industries, including communications, energy and defense. Right now, he is primarily focused on the residential and commercial markets. That is spurred in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, an effort to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. The Department of Energy supports a range of activities by industry, academia and national laboratories to drive down the installed cost of solar, without federal subsidies. Reaching 6-cents per KWH When the price of solar electricity reaches a lifetime cost of $1 per installed solar watt (about 5 or 6 cents per kilowatt-hour), the DOE says it will be cost-competitive with nonrenewable forms of electricity and that, in turn, will allow solar power to grow from less than 1 percent of the nation’s current electricity supply to about 14 percent by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050. Manufacturing and installation of solar energy technology is already growing in the United States and globally. “We’re not there today,” Freundlich said of the $1 per watt benchmark. “But we’re not too far off.” The benefit to consumers is clear, he explains.
PROFESSOR VENKAT SELVAMANICKAM: ‘THE WIRE CAN BE USED ACROSS A MULTITUDE OF APPLICATIONS.’
“As a customer, all you want is to have power at a cost-effective price and, let’s hope, it has the least impact on your environment. Wind is cool, but it is very noisy. Oil and gas are nice, but the smell is not the best. Solar is quite silent, and you don’t get the pollution that is produced by traditional forms of energy.” Students benefit from the research, too. Freundlich’s lab is part of the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center, an 11-university global consortium sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, spearheaded by Arizona State University. The group’s goal is to speed the growth of solar by tapping into the expertise of the various universities working collaboratively – Freundlich’s group, for instance, is recognized for its expertise in quantum engineering. Students have the opportunity to work in the labs of partner schools, as well as to participate in outreach efforts, including pushing for more public awareness of solar energy. “We are trying to develop a technology that is not just a great publication or a great patent,” Freundlich said. “We want it to be a technology that will have an actual impact on society.”
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That almost sounds like your classic Virtuous Circle, where success attracts success?
That’s certainly true in the case of industry partners, where business practices and commercial expectations are not always aligned with the normal operations and institutional culture of an academic institution. Ensuring that such mechanisms and infrastructure are in place allows UH to be more competitive and ultimately more successful in obtaining additional research funding of this type. One key advantage is UH’s capacity to be flexible in meeting the needs of our existing industry partners and the “comfort level” engendered during negotiations with new industrial partners afforded by the University’s experience in similar relationships.
So far, we’ve been talking in generalities about this “entrepreneurial culture” and emphasis on commercialization and technology transfer. What are some specific examples?
A monumental example is the creation of our Energy Research Park (ERP), a 75-acre site that provides a distinct geographical location where “product” is being developed through industry-focused academic/research facilities, through faculty-student “startup/spinoff” companies and through various large and small external companies engaging with UH researchers and UH work force resources. Locating the Petroleum Engineering and Subsea Engineering academic programs at UH-ERP has prompted ongoing discussions with several industry partners (for example, Halliburton, Transocean). The UH-Superpower 2G-High Temperature Superconductor Manufacturing Facility and the Texas Center for Clean Engines, Emissions and Fuels are examples of commercially valuable operations based on UH IP (generating $5M to date). The faculty startup C-Voltaics, which manufactures a nanoscale hydrophobic coating technology, is housed here. We are currently preparing lab space for potential tenants in the biotech and medical devices sectors, including several UH faculty spinoffs that have received SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) funding in the medical technology areas. From a student perspective, we are enjoying great success in national (and international) business plan competitions based on a variety of our technologies. We are coordinating with the Bauer College of Business’ Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship to attract undergraduate and graduate students in Engineering, Natural Sciences & Mathematics, Optometry and Pharmacy to participate in various “startup” projects. Right now, for example, the student-driven REEcycle (rare earth element recycling), Wavve (water purification nanotechnology) and Energetik (next-gen aqueous battery technology) programs are quite promising. Later this year, we will be bringing new innovation space online at ERP where these student teams (who will have then graduated from UH with an undergraduate degree
in entrepreneurship) will have the opportunity to house the spinoff companies they are developing.
So, what challenges are you facing?
The biggest is maintaining perspective. The ultimate goal is not to simply increase the amount of royalty revenue generated by our STEM-B approach but to energize and expand the larger research base of the University. That requires a thoughtful and targeted approach. Yes, we want to encourage and support activities that lead to technology transfer and commercialization, while providing the greatest probability of receiving a return on investment. But – and this is crucial – that strategy must be fully integrated with the core mission of the University to educate our students and to develop the next generation of scholars while creating new knowledge for the benefit of society.
ROYALTY ROI ROI National Ranking Public Universities w/o Medical Schools
University of Houston Iowa State University
University of Oregon University of Georgia
NC State University
ROYALTYasREVENUE reported to AUTM 2012 Public Universities w/o Medical Schools
University of Houston Iowa State University
University of Oregon
University of Georgia NC State University Rutgers University Purdue Research
$7.5M $6.4M $6.0M $4.9M *Increased to $16.6M in FY2013
But shame researchers they were not. “As it turned out, the Wholehearted identify ‘vulnerability’ as the catalyst for courage, compassion and connection,” Brown said. “In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the people whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything— from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments— to their ability to be vulnerable.” Shocking Discovery Brown was raised to not be vulnerable, making this discovery shocking to her.
A Real Shame Brené Brown’s Groundbreaking Research Into Human Vulnerability and Empathy Brings Widespread Recognition by Julie Heffler Shame, at its core, is the fear of disconnection. The shame of showing our vulnerabilities pushes us away from others. But, surprisingly, being vulnerable is actually the key to genuine human connection. That telling observation was the heart of a celebrated TED talk given by Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, just a few years ago. Since then, Brown’s recognition as a world-famous expert on shame and related subjects has grown steadily. She is a regular on programs with Oprah Winfrey. She has authored several books on the subject, has presented additional talks at the world-renowned TED and TEDx conferences and was recently honored with the UH Graduate School of Social Work’s inaugural Spirit of Excellence Award. Investigating the nature of shame was not in her original career plans. Researching the concept of “connection” was. Brown’s conclusions were developed from the 12 years she has worked with families, organizations and communities to pull them through the fear of rejection. “When I asked my participants to talk about their most important relationships and experiences of connection, they kept telling me about heartbreak, betrayal and shame— the fear of not being worthy of real connection,” she said. Empathy Researcher “By accident, then, I became a shame and empathy researcher, spending six years developing a theory that accurately explains what shame is, how it works and how we cultivate resilience in the face of believing that we’re not enough— that we’re not worthy of love and belonging,” Brown said. To properly understand shame, Brown realized she needed to understand people who experience shame the least: Those who believe in their worthiness or the ‘Wholehearted’. She wanted to know what these people have that others that do experience shame do not. “I secretly hoped that the answer to this question would be: ‘They are shame researchers like me. To be Wholehearted, you have to know a lot about shame,’” Brown said.
“I was raised in a “get ‘er done” and “suck it up” family and culture. The tenacity and grit part of that upbringing has served me, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk,” Brown explained. Despite her hesitations, even in light of what she was finding through her academic research, it took some time before she internalized the knowledge she was amassing. Brown spent years trying to avoid that vulnerability that her research was telling her she needed to embrace. Percolating through the research was the message that vulnerability creates uncertainty and indecision, and those were things she would rather not face. A street fight is how she describes her own experience with facing vulnerability. “Only after 12 years of dropping deeper and deeper into this work did I finally understand the role it plays in our lives,” Brown said. “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.” Necessity of Vulnerability None of us wants to be vulnerable and fearful of rejection, Brown said. But it is necessary for meaningful human connection. “I’d say the one thing we all have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the conversations centering on ‘What should we fear?’ and ‘Who should we blame?’ We all want to brave,” Brown said, translating the results of her research into human terms. Her success is carrying that message forward. Brown continues to write and is developing a curriculum based on her best-seller, “Daring Greatly,” for people to help themselves and others. Her current focus is researching and exploring the concepts of failure, heartbreak and loss, and what it takes to get back on our feet. Informed by both her research and her own experiences, Brown now concludes that the underlying dynamic is one of struggle but a struggle we must face to reach true human connection. “The message is, ’Be you. Be all in.’ For better and for worse, what comes next is ‘Fall. Get up. And do it again,’” she said.
Professor David Francis: ‘we’re still the measurement and statistics people—what has changed is where we apply our experstise.’
Changing TIMES As The Measurement and Statistics Institute Moves Into an Inspiring New Space, its Value Grows as a Cross-Disciplinary Research Resource by Jeannie Kever In research, as in real estate, location matters. So, moving the scientists who make up the core of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics from offices scattered around the University of Houston campus and the Texas Medical Center into an extraordinary new building designed as an educational and interdisciplinary research facility has significantly expanded the types of collaborations in which it engages.
The transition isn’t complete – a group of neuroscientists will move in when the fourth-floor space has been allocated and built out. But already, Francis said, the new atmosphere has begun to pay off. “It’s not that it’s impossible to work together when people are in different buildings,” he said. “But what you don’t get are the spontaneous water cooler conversations, where it might lead to a grant proposal.”
That means more work with engineers, computer scientists and health researchers, in addition to the educational and social science work for which the institute has been recognized since its beginning.
From the beginning, TIMES has been unique, a crossdisciplinary group created when that concept was still a relatively new idea on the UH campus, its members based in different academic departments and offering different fields of expertise.
David Francis, who created the institute – better known as TIMES – with a small group of fellow academics, said that was the idea behind the group’s move to the Health and Biomedical Sciences Center in late 2012.
Francis was the founding director, a position he continues to hold. He is also a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair and chairman of the psychology department.
TIMES has grown dramatically from those early days, when charter members included John Antel, then chair of economics in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences; Will Weber (deceased), former chair of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education; and Coleen Carlson, Chris Schatschneider, Valentina Hardin and Al Varisco, all research assistant professors in the department of psychology. They came together in 1999 and the University formally chartered TIMES in 2001.
Foorman. Fletcher is now Cullen Distinguished University Chair in psychology at UH and a member of TIMES. Foorman now directs the reading and research center at Florida State University, which has also become home to TIMES founding member Schatschneider.
Today, it has 23 faculty members, seven affiliated faculty, 71 doctoral students, and two post-doctoral researchers, along with 68 staff members. Researchers had $7.5 million in external grants in fiscal year 2013.
‘… Encouraging spontaneous water cooler conversations that might lead to grant proposals.’
Truly Major Change But as Francis suggests, the truly major change of the past decade hasn’t been one of size or location. “We’re still the measurement and statistics people,” Francis said. “What has changed is where we apply our expertise.” The TIMES unit was interdisciplinary before that became the academic buzzword du jour, although Francis said it had been common in some settings for years, particularly in the areas of behavioral health and developmental disabilities. His first experience with the approach came in the late 1970s, when he worked as a research assistant at what is now the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore before going on to graduate school. There, a team of professionals from pediatrics, neurology, psychology and other disciplines worked together to treat each patient. “This was what I grew up with,” he said. “That helped shape my thinking about what we could do here at UH.” Later, serving on committees reviewing grant proposals for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, he again saw the demand for a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach. Successful proposals ignored institutional boundaries and integrated scientists from diverse disciplines to research a challenging problem. Astutely, Francis also observed the central role played by measurement and statistics in those successful proposals. Prior to the formation of TIMES, a number of federally funded grants with collaborators in the Texas Medical Center had led to the formation of a joint reading research center in the TMC. When Francis and his UH colleagues were asked to create a similar center at UH, they focused on the University’s role in the TMC center – measurement and statistics. Quickly Paying Off It quickly began to pay off, as the institute succeeded in securing several multimillion-dollar grants, working with researchers at institutions around the country on some of the top educational issues of the day, including reading comprehension and students who were learning English as a second language. At the time, nobody was looking at English language learners, even though the population was growing in America’s public schools and policymakers were beginning to realize there was limited empirical research to guide their decision-making. TIMES was involved in some of the earliest work on this vital issue and continues to play a prominent role in studying the topic.
While personnel may have changed somewhat, the importance of statistics and measurement to research endeavors has not. So, as the institute has grown, new members have added to its strengths.
Ioannis Kakadiaris, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor, has a primary appointment in computer science, with additional appointments in electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering. His research includes cutting-edge work in biometrics and cardiovascular informatics, along with work in image analysis. Another faculty member, Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard Pfeiffer Professor of computer science, has developed computer apps, including one intended to encourage users to exercise. Adding Health Research Notably, TIMES has now added health research to its portfolio, including a project with Health and Human Performance associate professor Dan O’Connor for the Texas Obesity Research Center. “I wouldn’t say the work could never have been done when we started TIMES, but the new building has certainly been instrumental in bringing a diverse group of researchers with related interests closer together,” Francis said. “We don’t want to be a narrowly defined statistics center. We know that progress on the most challenging problems of our time will occur most rapidly through interdisciplinary research conducted at institutions organized to facilitate such work. In that regard, both TIMES and the new Health and Biomedical Sciences Building were created to serve that broader purpose.” Broader Footprint Over time, the institute has begun taking more deliberate steps to ensure a broader footprint, actively reaching out to other institutions in the Texas Medical Center and beyond, for example. Francis suggested TIMES’ expanding portfolio is both a result of such intentional moves and of a natural evolution, reflecting the expertise of new members and the University’s history of responding to the needs it finds. “I feel like our institute has been a successful part of the University for a long time,” he said. “UH has a very entrepreneurial spirit, and TIMES is a gratifying example of what can happen from applying that attitude to our research efforts.”
Francis is still interested in educational research and continues to collaborate with his original TMC colleagues, Jack Fletcher and Barbara
Along with facilitating research, the printers can illustrate complex concepts in the classroom, like chemistry professor Ognjen Miljanic’s representations of crystal molecules.
3D Printers Provide New Dimensions in Teaching UH Scientists Say the Technology Offers Real Value at a Fraction of the Cost by Jeannie Kever His dreams have been years in the making, and many already have begun to come true. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal has seen people paralyzed from disabling accidents walk in exoskeletons powered by their own brainwaves, thanks to his research into brainmachine interfaces and the interpretation of complex algorithms that read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement. He’s done the same for people recovering from strokes and other injuries. But what about children with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that appears in infancy or early childhood affecting body movement and muscle coordination, affecting about 500,000 people in the United States?
An exoskeleton — an external device worn over the user’s hips and legs, propelled by a small motor – could provide a form of therapy, said Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering. There’s just one problem: No one makes an exoskeleton small enough for children. Contreras-Vidal, like a growing number of researchers across the University of Houston campus, has turned to 3D printers to fill a gap in the availability of things both practical and esoteric, and he recently received a grant from Mission Connect to begin work using a printer to build a child-sized exoskeleton that could grow with the child.
“The nice thing about working with children, their brain is still developing,” he said. “They’re at a stage where they can learn more and faster, so their gait disability may go away faster. To correct a disability would be very exciting.” For now, Contreras-Vidal uses the 3D printer in his lab to make small accessories for the adult exoskeletons he already has, just one example of how the technology is spreading across campus. ‘Think It, Print It’ “If you can think of it, you can print it,” said Tony Frankino, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) who used the technology to help Drew Russey complete the research for his doctoral dissertation. The concept of 3D printing has been around for 30 years, but advances in the technology – along with reduced costs – have made the printers more practical for everyday use in academia. While plastic is the most common medium, the printers can produce designs in metals, ceramics and even biological tissues. They have been used to build artificial limbs, grow skin and create other body parts. Other printers are used to produce high-end desserts, printing whimsical designs in spun sugar.
ability to process a wider variety of plastics – including a flexible type – and in five colors. Supplementing Machine Shop The printer is a supplement to the college’s old-style machine shop, where Kuether designs and builds what researchers need to do their work. “There are things you can do in a machine shop that you can’t do on a 3D printer,” he said. And, of course, vice versa. He has used the printer for a mix of things – building parts to extend the functionality of clinic equipment, as well as creating models of the human eye. Sometimes, Kuether said, he will design a part to be used in an experiment and build it on the printer just to make sure it’s the right size and dimensions before sending it out to be cast in stronger materials. It’s a quick and relatively inexpensive way to make sure the design is right before investing in having something custom-made at a service bureau. “Service bureaus have been around since the industry has been here,” Kuether said. “There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re not cheap. The fact that we’ve got our own machine means that for $2 in materials, we can do what would have cost $300.”
At UH, the printers are most often used to illustrate complex concepts in the classroom, but researchers also are using them to facilitate their research.
For now, many researchers find value in using the printers to create models of complex concepts, both to help explain their research and as a teaching tool in their classrooms.
Frankino used a printer from the Information Technology Center at the NSM to build a series of small wind tunnels Russey used to study fruit flies and their ability to adapt to new environments.
Teaching Models in 3D Chemist Ognjen Miljanic began using a 3D printer several years ago to illustrate some of the concepts his graduate classes were discussing.
Russey said it is well-known that fruit flies tend to have larger wings in cold climates and smaller wings in warm climates, something that holds true globally. The assumption has been that this is an example of adaptation, where each wing type confers the best flight ability in the environments in which they occur naturally.
He also has printed out models of his own work – the crystal molecules he works with are far too tiny for visitors to the lab to see, and the 3D models are great for presentations.
But that’s never been proved, Frankino said. How to study it, however, turned out to be complicated. 3D printing to the rescue. Tunnel Vision An undergraduate working in Frankino’s lab, Christine Sikes, with the help of mechanical engineering professor Stanley Kleis, designed and built the five-foot long tunnel, a sleek piece of white plastic sloping uphill. Beer, yeast and a bright, white light tempted the fruit flies to fly upward. A strong headwind – the flies were tested in both warm and cold conditions – made it difficult. Those who flew the furthest were selected to reproduce, and their offspring tested. The process was repeated for up to 17 generations. Russey received a doctoral dissertation improvement grant from the National Science Foundation for the work; Frankino has received NSF grants to study wing morphology, as well as a GEAR grant from the UH Division of Research for the work. Testing is continuing. The College of Optometry was among the first to get a 3D printer on campus, more than a decade ago. The newest version, due to be installed this spring, will be the college’s third. Chris Kuether, instrument designer and technical services manager, was ticking off the advantages of the new machine in the weeks before its arrival: resolution roughly twice that of its predecessor and the
“For us, the impact on research, it’s not quite there yet,” he said. “The impact on teaching, it’s dramatic.” Miljanic included a proposal involving 3D printing when he applied to the Cottrell Scholars program, an honor awarded by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement – creating a database of plans for 3D models geared to widely taught advanced chemistry classes, allowing faculty members anywhere to print the models at their own institutions. That wasn’t the only thing in his proposal – he was awarded one of 13 spots in 2013 – but he said it drew the most attention. “The cost has dropped over the last 10 years,” he said. “The barrier now is that many people are uncomfortable trying to prepare a 3D model design.” The value to students is obvious, Miljanic said. “I realized that models could convey some concepts much better than I could in two dimensions on the board.” The savings is not just financial. Frankino estimated that designing a wind tunnel like the one used in Russey’s research could have taken a year and $60,000 to have manufactured elsewhere. Making it via 3D printing took two weeks and cost $2,000. “That’s pretty science-fiction to me,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
Professor Audrius Brazdeikis: Looking for less invasive ways to treat cancer
Detective Work Nanotechnology and Magnetic Sensing Combine for Cancer Detection Device by Lisa Merkl One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Once it reaches the point at the cancerous cells begin to spread to other parts of the body (Stage IV), the five-year overall survival rate drops precipitously – from approximately 50 percent to 15 percent, making metastasis one of the grimmest factors in the disease’s progression. One of the more common treatments for cancers, especially for those without metastasis, involves operations to remove the cancerous tissue. However, by the time those surgeries are possible, a large numbers of cancers may have metastasized, already beginning to spread to nearby lymph nodes. While many methods have been developed over the years to detect cancer cells in lymph nodes and target those nodes for removal, none have been as versatile and as intuitive as the one developed by Audrius Brazdeikis, a research associate professor of physics at the University of Houston. Brazdeikis and his group developed a detection procedure combining nanotechnology and advanced magnetic
sensing. The original prototype device was based on something called a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID). The SQUID technology worked well for monitoring fetal heart development – his first application of the device – but Brazdeikis wanted to extend its capabilities to other clinical applications. So, Brazdeikis set out to combine his original sensor with magnetic nanoparticles as the next step in creating basically a new class of medical devices. One of the features that makes magnetic technology so appealing for practical applications is that, unlike electrical or optical signals, magnetic fields basically are not diminished by surrounding tissues. Magnetic nanoparticles can be manipulated, heated or sensed for medical purposes as long as they remain in the tissue. Typical application may include advanced drug delivery systems, new therapies and in vivo imaging.
“Many researchers are focusing on early cancer detection and subsequent treatment. Today, cancer surgery remains the foundation of cancer treatment,” Brazdeikis said. “The current standard of care in breast cancer surgery demands that a sentinel lymph node biopsy be performed. The procedure is guided by injections of radioisotope tracers and use of a gamma probe to locate the lymph node with the highest radioactivity. Our research effort has resulted in developing a handheld magnetic probe that can be used in conjunction with a magnetic tracer to locate the sentinel lymph node quickly and easily for biopsy in breast cancer patients.”
‘We know our technology can be used for treatment of other cancers.’ Taking It to the Marketplace Once the proof-of-concept stage ended, Brazdeikis formed a company called Endomagnetics Ltd. in 2007 to manage further research and development of the technology, as well as take it to the marketplace. It was funded by a $400,000 grant from the U.K.’s Technology Strategy Board that resulted in the current generation SentiMag system. This UH spinoff medical devices company recently won the inaugural Nanomedicine Award in the European Union for the company’s strides to improve clinical diagnostics and imaging. Organized by the European Technology Platform for Nanomedicine, together with the EU-funded consortium NANOMED 2020, the award honors the best international nanomedicine innovations and was announced during the Nanomedicine Panel Session at BIO-Europe 2013 in Vienna. A highly sensitive instrument, SentiMag and its associated Sienna+ tracer combine nanotechnology and advanced magnetic sensors, removing the need for radiation, speeding up the process and putting the detection of the sentinel lymph node directly in the hands of surgeons. An intraoperative probe, the SentiMag enables surgeons to more effectively pinpoint the sentinel lymph node – the first lymph node to which a tumor’s metastasizing cancer cells drain. Current clinical protocol for locating the sentinel node involves injecting a radioactive isotope – typically Technetium-99m – several hours before surgery, followed by the surgeon using a highly directional gamma-ray detector, called a gamma probe, in the operating room to locate the lymph node with the highest radioactivity. Taking an alternate approach, the SentiMag uses a detection system based on magnetics rather than radiation, with the radioactive tracer being replaced by the magnetic nanoparticle tracer and the handheld magnetic sensor replacing the gamma probe. Localizing Lymph Nodes The magnetic tracer is a sterile aqueous suspension of dextran-coated iron oxide nanoparticles. Similar nanoparticle formulations are already used as MRI contrast agents, so they are known to be safe. The particles are injected into the patient’s breast tissue close to the tumor and are carried by lymph fluid to the lymph nodes, where they are trapped. The handheld probe assists surgeons in localizing lymph nodes by detecting magnetic nanoparticles, making it easy to determine which node is receiving lymphatic drainage from the tumor site. The sentinel lymph node is then surgically removed for a histologic evaluation.
SentiMag and Sienna+ tracer are removing the need for radiation to pinpoint the sentinel lymph node.
“The potential for in situ analysis of metastatic node involvement exists, but it requires further advances in nanotechnology,” Brazdeikis said. “If you take a nanoparticle and functionalize it with various functional groups, it can act like a target-seeking missile and bind to something like atherosclerotic and amyloid plaques, inflammatory tissues or tumor cells. Nanoparticles also can carry other payloads, such as imaging and therapeutic agents. Combining nanotechnology and magnetic devices we would be able to provide healthcare professionals with many more useful tools.” Brazdeikis’ current method requires a surgeon to simply inject the area around a tumor with the Sienna+ nanoparticle, wait 30 minutes for the tracer to accumulate in the lymph nodes and then scan the area of interest using the SentiMag probe to locate the sentinel lymph node. In contrast to the radioactive tracer, he says, a typical magnetic tracer has a shelf life of many months, so there are no supply interruptions, no staff safety issues and no need to dispose of radioactive waste. As a result, this lifts regulatory burdens and also reduces overall cost for hospitals by improving surgery scheduling and is more accessible to all patients. As you might expect, these advantages have generated considerable interest. “We now have a commercial medical device that is marketed and approved for medical use in 16 European countries. At this point, there are more than 1,200 patients who have undergone surgery guided by the SentiMag technology,” Brazdeikis said. “The device is relatively new, but it stands up extremely well against already well-established gamma probe technology. We are working on getting the system approved for clinical use in the U.S.” Next Steps The next steps for Brazdeikis and his colleagues are to make the technology more applicable for endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries, requiring the magnetic probe to be reduced to only 2 or 3 millimeters. “We know our technology can be used for treatment of other cancers. My research now focuses on colorectal and lung cancers where magnetic tracer-guided sampling of deep-seated lymph nodes is required,” Brazdeikis said. “A combination of existing methods and new technological solutions are necessary in order to reach these objectives. We want to take this technology beyond just invasive surgery and are looking for less invasive ways to treat cancers.”
Undergraduates at UH Discovering the Benefits of Research by Jeannie Kever When he signed up for the University of Houston’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in spring 2013, David Pineda didn’t realize he was taking part in one of the great trends sweeping academia. He just wanted the opportunity to work first-hand with his faculty mentor, Yan Yao, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and Robert A. Welch Professor at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, for 10 weeks. The fellowship certainly gave him that, along with a $3,500 stipend. In the process, Pineda really was participating in a movement that has been sparking serious buzz and increasing acceptance in academic circles, and for good reason. Timely Graduation Karen Weber, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, explains: Students who have a research experience as undergraduates are more likely to graduate on time – a key priority of UH President Renu Khator and a growing number of her collegial peers. This isn’t anecdotal. The statistics back it up. Weber, for example, said 92 percent of students who entered UH between 2002 and 2007 and participated in the SURF program, the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship
program or the Senior Honors Thesis program, graduated within six years. Compare that with the national numbers, where just 59 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduate students who entered a four-year institution in 2005 had graduated by 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Clearly, undergraduate research better prepares students for graduate and professional schools, Weber said. And presenting their research is good practice for job interviews. But it also taps into something less easily measured. “Students tell me the lab group becomes their second family,” Weber said. Research and Passion That reflects the reality that research is about more than beakers, formulas and computer modeling. It’s also about passion. Pineda, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, built a redox flow battery intended to solve one of the most pressing problems slowing the expansion of renewable energy – solar energy is available when the sun is shining, wind energy when the wind is blowing. A redox flow battery is intended to store energy, making it available whenever it is needed. Current models are expensive and can’t store much power, and Pineda focused building a better model. He did, but he, along with many of the other students who exhibited their projects during the annual Undergraduate Research Day in
October, came to a common conclusion: when it comes to research, there is always more work to be done. That was true for Tessa Long, who studied nonsuicidal self-injury among adolescents, and for Megan Truax and Christopher Rivera, who delved into ancient Greek to help restore Homer’s “Iliad.” Seth Pedersen measured water clarity in airborne laser mapping systems, developing a prototype device to compare with conventional devices. Despite the variety of their subjects, they all agreed on one thing. ‘Always Something New’ “Research is ongoing,” said Rivera, a senior majoring in classical studies and political science. “There’s always something new to do.” Rivera and Truax, for instance, took an accelerated Greek class to improve their knowledge of the classical language after Casey Dué Hackney, director of the UH Program in Classical Studies, suggested they participate in the Homer Multitext Project. The project is ongoing, involving people from all over the world, and makes use of technology and open-source data to convert the condensed versions of the Iliad and Odyssey commonly seen today to an online version that is closer to the sprawling original works performed by countless singers over hundreds or even thousands of years. Truax, who will earn degrees in classical studies and German this spring, said Dué Hackney describes it as, in effect, “un-editing” The Iliad.
SURFers at UH (upper left and clockwise): TESSA LONG; DAVID PINEDA AND PROFESSOR YAN YAO; SETH PEDERSEN; MEGAN TRUAX AND CHRISTOPHER RIVERA
She and Rivera spent two weeks at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., a research center where the Multitext Project is based.
“I was disappointed, but it was an opportunity for future research, and an opportunity for me to grow,” said Long, who plans to attend graduate school.
They deciphered 10th-century handwriting, incorporated notes found in margins and tried to put everything together. And they worked with other researchers. The work will continue, even as Truax enters graduate school to study German and the classics and Rivera begins law school next fall. But that’s OK. Research is a process.
Pedersen, a junior civil and environmental engineering major, began his project at the suggestion of his faculty mentor, Craig Glennie, a researcher with the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at UH.
Learning to Be Wrong Long discovered that, too, as well as the fact that a researcher’s original thesis may not always be proven. A senior psychology major, she expected to find that adolescents diagnosed with both major depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder would be more prone to self-injury than those with just one diagnosis. Long grew interested in the subject through studies at the UH Developmental Psychopathology Lab, which is run by Carla Sharp, who served as Long’s faculty mentor for the research project. Earlier research had looked at nonsuicidal self-injury in adolescents with depression and ADHD separately, but her search of the literature didn’t show studies exploring the relationship between self-injury in adolescents with a dual diagnosis. Long also participated in UH’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. “Initially, I thought, 10 weeks, that’s definitely enough time,” she said. “It really opened my eyes on how focused you have to be to conduct research.” She used data from the Menninger Clinic in Houston, ultimately running it three times, looking for answers. But there weren’t statistically significant differences between the groups, and her hypothesis wasn’t borne out.
Searching for Clarity Water clarity affects how effectively airborne laser mapping can measure submerged surfaces, so Pedersen looked at whether there were better alternatives than the traditional method, which uses a Secchi Disk, a device used to measure water transparency in oceans and lakes. His research supported his hypothesis – that both the Secchi Disk and the more expensive Turbidimeter yielded similar results, as did his handbuilt prototype. But after completing the project, he realized more work could be done. He ran field tests in a dozen locations during the summer, including at Lake Woodlands, the Woodlands Waterway, Buffalo Bayou and in new subdivisions. Replicating the results in more varied water conditions and locations was intended to strengthen the results, he said. Additional work on the prototype, including adding an amplification circuit to see if it stabilizes the raw night voltages, is another area for future research. But Pedersen also enjoyed learning about the research already done on this and related topics. “It’s amazing how much there is out there,” he said. “You think this is a really narrow topic, Secchi Disk science, but there are dozens of journal articles out there.”
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MODULATION, 2000 This astonishing mixed media sculpture by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter appears to hover majestically in space above the lobby of the Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting at UH. An amalgamation of circuit boards, vacuum tubes, video monitors, audio speakers, surveillance camera, fans, oscilloscope, LEDs and motion sensors attached to a steel armature, the 14-foot-high head keeps a high-tech eye on all it surveys.